In 1891 William Morris rented a cottage near Kelmscott House and set up three printing presses. He had long been interested in the printing and the binding of fine books, and there, influenced by mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and the work of early printers such as Caxton, he would design and manufacture beautiful editions of over fifty books (printed in over 18,000 volumes) written by himself as well as by those including Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, and his favorite mediaeval authors — who had influenced him, and to whom, in this series of final gestures, he paid a kind of tribute. The books issued by the Kelmscott Press were expensive. Morris designed his own typefaces, made his own paper, and printed by hand. They were designed to be read slowly, to be appreciated, to be treasured, and thus made an implicit statement about the ideal relationships which ought to exist between the reader, the text, and the author.
William Morris had been experimenting with producing books for years. In his own time he was perhaps best known as a writer and poet, and no matter what other creative enthusiasm overtook him he always returned to his writing. It is not surprising that he wanted his own works to look good. His first experiment was with Edward Burne-Jones in the 1860s for an illustrated edition of his Earthly Paradise, but Morris was not satisfied. The slides he saw at Emery Walker’s talk at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society on printing in 1888 inspired him to start his own press, and he founded the Kelmscott Press in 1890.
Morris was determined that his books would be finely crafted and made of the best materials. Walker, with his trade connections, was able to give plenty of practical help. He photographed and enlarged typefaces for Morris to study, and he also assisted with photographing the illustrations. Handmade paper was sourced from Joseph Batchelor in Kent, and after an intensive search, truly black additive-free black ink was found in Hanover, made by the Gebrüder Jänecke. The first book produced by the press was The Story of the Glittering Plain, one of Morris’s own works.
The press was an instant success. The Story of the Glittering Plain came out in May, and the edition of 200 was sold out by July. Over the course of the next seven years the Kelmscott Press produced fifty-two works in sixty-six volumes. Morris created three typefaces: Golden, based on Nicholas Jenson’s 15th century Roman type, Troy, a gothic type, and Chaucer, which was a smaller version of Troy and used for the greatest book produced bythe press, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1896. Morris designed all the decorations and capitals himself, and illustrations were mostly carried out by Edward Burne-Jones, but also by Arthur Gaskin, E H New and others.
Morris asked Walker and Sidney Cockerell, his private secretary, to take over the press after his death, but the two men felt that it was too driven by Morris’s personality and so the press was closed a few months later. The Kelmscott Press was the inspiration behind most of the private presses that began in the late 1890s and early 20th century.